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What is college for, anyway? December 30, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben has been thinking a lot about colleges lately, since Silence Dogood and I have dear friends with kids struggling to get some good out of their college experience and others who are struggling to get into a college that might help them further their dreams.

Our friend Ben’s own experience trying to get into colleges back in the day made me quite cynical about the whole experience. My parents, who were both scholarly and otherworldly, believed that the point of going to college was to get a well-rounded education. And since the youthful Ben loved nothing more than learning, loved learning practically anything, especially the liberal arts and natural sciences, and had a great aptitude for learning, it never occurred to me to doubt them. I was looking forward to soaking up knowledge the way a sponge looks forward to water. At least, until I started applying to schools and going for interviews.

Mind you, I had superb grades and SAT scores and had aced a number of high-level college courses at an excellent university while still in high school, as well as having participated in a number of extracurricular educational opportunities. I had always carried a packed course load of challenging courses. College applications? Piece of cake.

But cake wasn’t quite the substance our friend Ben encountered when I went to interview at one prestigious Southern school. “All our applicants have superb grades and SAT scores,” the interviewer informed me. “What matters to us is community service. What have you done for your community? Where have you volunteered? What’s your experience with politics?” Our friend Ben, a 17-year-old intellectual prodigy who lived in a Colonial home with highly educated parents far from any urban center (it took an hour for me to get to my high school in Nashville by bus), was struck utterly dumb. Community service? Volunteering? Politics? What did that have to do with education?!

Fortunately, not every school took this attitude, and our friend Ben was accepted in every other school to which I applied, ultimately attending four and amassing a number of advanced degrees. But the shock I experienced during that interview at Duke University was not lost on me or my family. As it happened, my younger brother was exactly four years behind me in school, just entering his high school years. Armed with the information I’d gained to my cost and chagrin, he got a very different education. He interned for one of our Senators. He was on his school’s debate team, went to an exclusive golf camp, and did everything he and our parents could devise to gain the broadest possible credentials. Four years later, he was accepted into every Ivy League college, and I’m happy to say has gone on to a most distinguished career.

Which brings me back to the question that troubled me during that long-ago interview, and that sickens me now: What does community service have to do with education? Well, nothing, obviously. Then why does it matter? Ah. It took our friend Ben far too many years to come to the answer to this question, and it’s an answer that I still find embittering. After my post-graduate degrees, I went into a rather specialized form of nonfiction publishing and found myself boosted up the corporate ladder despite myself. Once I reached the executive level, I belatedly came upon the answer to my question, and I felt like the most naive person on earth.

That’s because my parents’ focus on education and my own love of learning had prevented me from seeing universities as corporations which, like every corporation, exist to amass money and profits. Doh!!! If you’re a university corporation, what kind of applicants do you want? The scholarly types who actually want to go to college to be educated? Hell, no. You want the ones who have or are pretty certain to have connections, a social network, social prominence: The ones who’ll make a ton of money and give it to your school and who’ll make lots of prominent friends and influence them to do likewise. It’s all about money, folks, though socially prominent and/or newsworthy alums certainly don’t hurt, either.*

Well, maybe it’s not all about money. When some exceptional and exceptionally bright kids I know decided that they wanted to get into really good schools, our friend Ben went online and checked out the Ivy League schools’ SAT requirements. A perfect SAT score is now 2400 points. Harvard, in its infinite generosity, apparently will allow its applicants a whopping 30-point deviance from that perfect score. Yale’s less exacting—if memory serves, it has a 65-point tolerance. And so it goes.

Sometimes, perceptual bias can create even more outrageous situations. One of my former bosses—a natural blonde of Scandinavian heritage, with considerable intellectual ambitions—told me that when she went to interview at a prominent college in the Philadelphia area, she was told point blank that “we don’t want any blonde cheerleader types at this school.” One word on that: Grrrrr!

I don’t know about you, but our friend Ben thinks there are other things to consider than a SAT score or one’s future social prominence and net worth (or, say, one’s appearance). But there’s also the other side, and I think it’s just as bad: The perception that the only purpose of college is to prepare you for a very narrow, specialized field of employment.

Back in the day, the colleges that served this purpose were the vo-tech schools, vocational-technical, and they were unambiguous in their goal: You went there for two years to learn how to become an electrician or plumber or carpenter or mechanic or chef. These are specialized skills, and the whole focus of your education was to master them. These schools were (and hopefully still are) superb at what they do, preparing their students to succeed in their chosen field. But they don’t pretend to offer an academic education. Chaucer and Buffon or Beowulf and Roland aren’t exactly relevant when you’re trying to determine if a SUV will pass inspection or are in a field conducting a perk test.

Unfortunately, these days, a broad education doesn’t seem relevant in most colleges and universities. Even back when our friend Ben was in college, this shift was occurring: A friend of mine majored in history, and then, unable to find a better job, applied for a job as a bank teller. In her job interview, the interviewer stared at her resume, stared at her, and said, “A history major? Why did you even go to college?” Silence’s undergraduate degree is in French, with a specialty in 18th Century French literature. One of her French professors informed her that “There are two options for [one assumes female] French majors: teach or marry.” When our friend Ben applied to graduate school for an advanced degree in English/creative writing at a prestigious school, I was accepted but informed that “There are no jobs for English majors. You’re welcome to come and study, but don’t consider it a step towards employment.”

Then, of course, there’s the current cost of a college education. Our friend Ben and Silence have friends who are still paying off their college educations. We constantly read stats on the cost of raising a child, and the costs that boost the numbers into the hundreds of thousands of dollars are for college education. Our friend Rob, who teaches at a community college, tells us that community colleges are undergoing a renaissance for this very reason: They’re flexible and affordable. He says that 50% of U.S. college students now attend community colleges, and no wonder.  

So what is college for, anyway? Our friend Ben won’t even pretend to have the answer. I will say that the broad education I secured during my own undergraduate and graduate years has stood me in good stead my whole life, both personally and professionally. If I had to come up with an answer at gunpoint, I’d say that college helps prepare you to be an adult. It hones your social and life skills while enhancing your education and critical abilities. But is that, ultimately, enough? 

Our friend Ben feels for my friends’ kids currently applying and going through the educational process. And I look with interest to see what colleges will become in the future. Because one thing is certain: I’m sure their role will change.

* To be fair, universities and colleges could well point out that the purpose of amassing money in their cases is to endow chairs, fund scholarships, bring in top professors, and further the cause of education. But if the price of this is to turn away the very students whose primary goal is to become educated, I’d say something’s gone awry.

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1. Daphne Gould - December 30, 2008

My kids are both in college now. When they first started applying I told them I wanted them to go to a college far from home. I thought one of the important parts of college was a safe place to grow up away from your parents. You make real decisions for yourself for the first time without your parents “helping”. You are living for the first time outside the umbrella of your parents constant expectations. (Yes we still have expectations, but when away from home you aren’t bombarded by them everyday.) You grow. You discover yourself. You do that in an environment that has people from all over the world and pushes you academically. College is a great place to expand your mind in so many way.

My husband talked me out of making them apply far away. He went to college 30 mins from his home. As long as they live at school they get out from under their parents. Though I do insist my kids come home for Thanksgiving. I mean really, both of them go to school an hour away.

Getting into college is such an issue nowadays. So many kids apply to so many colleges. I went to MIT and I swear if I had to apply now I wouldn’t get in. Of course MIT isn’t looking for people who are politically motivated. They are more into the entrepreneurs. Start your own business in High School and increase your chances dramatically. My kids didn’t play the “game”, but I see so many kids doing that. They do what they think the colleges want, as opposed to what they want, which really makes me sad.

Excellent points, Daphne! One reason I didn’t go to Vanderbilt for undergraduate was that my parents and I both thought it would be a good thing for me to get a bit farther away from Nashville! My mother also stressed the importance of college as a social venue, which is why it makes me uneasy to see parents pushing their brilliant 13-year-olds to go to college rather than waiting: They may be intellectually ready, but they’ll completely miss out on college’s social value. It doesn’t seem fair to do that to them.

2. Curmudgeon - December 30, 2008

Interesting you should mention community service. One of my pet peeves is that young people today are definitely not ready for college. They would do better to spend a couple of years out in the world doing community service before heading off to college. I spent ten years teaching at the university level. I left because I felt that with each passing year the focus was more and more about the $$$ and less and less about education Now I teach mostly adults and in non-traditional venues. It is still about the $$$. But at least nobody is blathering on about the sanctity of education.

BTW, My BA and MA are in French but I avoided the 18th c. like the plague! When I got to my MA exams we had to qualify in each century. I again managed to avoid the 18th c. because I petitioned to take a special exam in Francophone lit. instead. I’m passionate about the 18th c. in terms of the history but not so much in terms of the lit.

Ha! Found 18th century lit a bit dry, eh? Well, there is that. Perhaps I wouldn’t have found it so entertaining had it been in English rather than French!

Your point is well taken about immaturity, and I’m actually seeing that self-correcting in the children of friends and colleagues here, many of whom are voluntarily postponing college to get some real-life experience, then going when they feel ready. I think that’s a great idea!

3. Victoria - December 30, 2008

It’s not just the universities who are money-oriented. I’m sure a lot of parents feel more comfortable with the idea of their kids learning something ‘useful’ like law or medicine. A colleague of mine asked me what my son was studying at university, and upon being told he was going to do fine art, she looked at me pityingly, and said: “You poor thing. You’ll be supporting him until he’s 30.” Then her face brightened and she said: “But your daughter’s very bright, isn’t she? What’s she going to do?” Upon being told my daughter was planning to study music, her face fell again. “Oh, no!” she said. “What did you do to deserve that?” I observed, mildly, that, actually, I was very proud of my children. She wasn’t convinced.

Shriek!!! What are people thinking?! “But your daughter’s very bright,” indeed. Harrumph! I hope they both go on to be great artists and that you have an opportunity to blandly mention it to your colleague about every five minutes.

4. Cinj - December 30, 2008

Ha. Why in the world would an educational institution want to educate people anyway? LOL. I didn’t find it hard to get accepted into a college over 15 years ago, but I only applied at the state colleges that were close enough to home to commute to every day.

I didn’t even bother applying to any private or ivy league type places, we couldn’t possibly have afforded it anyway. I guess that may have been a smart move.

What really amazes me is how schools like to try to push an agenda onto their students. I mean why can’t they teach critical thinking skills without trying to force their opinions on others?

I agree, Cinj, “critical thinking” and “forcing one’s opinion on others” seem somehow diametrically opposed! Obviously, professors can’t help having opinions, but it would be nice if they taught students how to evaluate information and opinion before presenting theirs. I’m constantly pointing out to friends that a good professor teaches students how to find, process, and use information—sort of pointing rather than shooting—instead of spoon-feeding them. Those skills are transferable and priceless!

5. Daphne Gould - December 31, 2008

(A response to your comment) Oh I agree. I’ve actually never agreed with pushing kids ahead in school grade wise. The social aspect is just too important a part of growing up. At MIT I knew three people who got accepted at 16 (MIT’s policy is not to accept anyone under 15, or was when I went there, even they realize how silly a 13 year old at college would be). Two of them were my best friends at various times of my life. These two both had to take a year off. In addition one of those ended up in the hospital for depression and never graduated (just recently, in her 40s, she finally got her bachelors and is now in vet school). The other one was never a very happy person. Still isn’t. I really think it is hard enough for an 18 year old to decide “what they are going to do”, for most 16 year olds it is impossible. That being said the high school system really sucks for bright kids. My kids are very gifted in the math and sciences. The high school didn’t challenge them. My daughter mostly put up with it though she did try to fight the system a bit (and failed due to the people in charge at the time – and we are in one of the better school systems). My son took the high school out of the equation and learned Calculus on his own while he was taking precalc at school then took the BC AP test after his junior year. Got a 5. By the time he graduated he had the equivalent of five college math courses and two college computer courses. We are lucky to live in Boston with lots of college opportunities. But my kids did chaff at being in high school. If they were in a rural area with not so many opportunities it would have been a toss up whether they should graduate early or not. Do you mess up their social lives or their academic lives?

I know what you’re saying, Daphne! I took tremendous abuse from my high school principal because I was smart and self-motivated; it took me years to figure out why he was so antagonistic. But I still think—hope—there’s a better option than sending young teens to college! Surely there’s an alternative, such as my taking college courses in high school, that will keep them stimulated.

6. Cynthia - December 31, 2008

Now that it has been a significant period of time since I graduated from college (20+ years to be exact), I feel qualified enough in life to say, with a level of certainty, that my college days, though tough, are part of my fondest memories. I was privileged enough to be able to attend a near-tuition free institution, though one of the most competitive in the nation, and was bestowed the honor of getting a sound education with a group of the most modest, talented, and generous bunch. A core group of us (10-20) are still very close friends and have maintained close ties though we all have very separate and distinct lives. Most of us are not working in the field of study we focused on in academia, but I am certain, deep in our hearts, we are very glad that we went to the institution we attended and learned a great deal from our professors and each other.

That sounds like my undergraduate experience, Cynthia! (Except for the tuition-free part, sigh.) And it’s why I think parents shouldn’t push their kids into college before they’re ready. College should be a time to treasure, and the social aspect is as vital a part of that as the education itself.

7. Maximilian - April 1, 2010

If I had to come up with an on the spot answer about what college is for, I’d have to say It’s a place where common knowledge and its proponents are selling their information in a very rigid/structured way. There’s a sense of over-complication in all its areas which seem to serve in helping the natural perspective about the coursework remain considerably severe/earnest. There’s a measure of contradiction in the whole work of it. The school system spends all of its time making you do as it says, telling you how to think, punitively handling any misalignment from their behavioral requirements, and suddenly you’re finally handed back the reigns, alloted a bit of creativity and ironically one finds themselves lacking the concept or gumption of where to start and how to continue. So, they fall into meaningless jobs serving a braver (wo)man’s vision about how life should be lived. Of the people I’ve discussed the topic with, 1 found their college expertise directly useful in actually procuring work. Statistics effectively mean very little but for me, what I can tell of it, college is just the next stage for the herd. I’d much prefer one to get a vision about what resonates with them, fine tune their social skills and capacity to discern specific unspoken cultural requirements of an industry (by far the most vital skill to my mind), and develop courage enough to implement a useful (profitable) contribution to society in that area while simultaneously defending your importance and retaining dignity and self-possession.

We should do what’s useful to us, in fact, I venture to say a professional tutor would not only be more practical, it would test your mettle because people would look for competency instead of the certificate of vouched reliability (your BS or whatever the degree). We’d be held a higher standard, and not only that but we’d actually be doing something we want to do instead of just what we’re told – which always strangely seems to fit perfectly in the advantage of the one who’s doing the telling. A mentor in the field and hands-on, on the job, training is infinitely more useful than book study in most fields (not the highly technical ones, of course – so for those ‘egghead’ sorts, and I say that with love, college is perfect. For the rest of us though, I say specialize).

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